Thursday, March 31, 2016

Thumb on the Scales

Many fans of the podcast Serial were disappointed when season 2 moved out of the "true crime" genre to cover the story of captured U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl. Though I've found myself just as intrigued by the new season, I have been looking for another place to scratch the true crime itch. Some quick Googling (coupled with a timely mention in Entertainment Weekly) led me to the podcast Sword and Scale.

Sword and Scale seems to be a labor of love for its creator and host, Mike Boudet. And the man has a seriously dark love to labor over. Each roughly one hour episode examines one particular crime -- ranging from kidnappings to murders, both historical and contemporary. The podcast does not shy away from grisly details, often incorporating panicked 911 calls, horrifying interviews with survivors, and chilling narratives. If you're not put off by the truly macabre, then Sword and Scale will very quickly hook you.

But then it just as quickly UNhooked me. Put simply, it plays quite fast and loose with the "true" part of the "true crime." It started out gradually in the first episode, as Boudet narrated the entire events of a gruesome multiple murder, incorporating some oddly specific details in the timeline he could not possibly have known for certain. I noticed it, but chalked it up to acceptable artistic license to present the story in the most compelling way.

Then I got to Episode 5, the first installment of a two-parter about a massive organized crime operation. It began in gripping fashion, describing the abduction of 12-year-old Johnny Gosch in 1982. But soon it segued talk of a child prostitution ring run with elements of ritual devil worship and ties to U.S. government officials. I quickly found myself wondering "how have I not heard of this?" And it took only a few seconds on the internet to find out the reason why -- it's all a hoax. Though there was definite criminal activity at the core of this story, the vast conspiracy claimed around it was found baseless by a grand jury. It's the sort of fever dream coughed up by people who think the moon landing was faked and that 9/11 was an "inside job." Mike Boudet was devoting two whole hours of his "true crime" podcast not to examine what drives people to create or believe this sort of nonsense, but to instead report the story in complete earnestness.

So instantly, I was out. There's a time and place for spinning a good yarn. In my mind, this wasn't it.

If you have a taste for dark tales, and don't particularly care if they're fiction being peddled under a banner of truth, then Sword and Scale may well be for you. It was simply not what I was looking for. I don't give it an F, in deference to the brief period of time before the glass shattered, in which I mostly enjoyed the podcast. But I'd still only grade it a D.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Less Than Magical

I doubt many of you recall my review of Magic Mike from years ago, but the big takeaway was this: if you were going to see it at all, it wasn't worth going to the theater for. I took that advice myself when it came to the sequel, Magic Mike XXL, waiting until I could Netflix it. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the "if you're going to see it at all" side of the question.

Magic Mike XXL isn't appreciably worse than the original, though it certainly isn't much better either. It's decidedly average in different ways. Responding to criticisms that the first film had "too much plot," the sequel has barely any plot at all. Mike has gotten out of the "male entertainer" business, but is pulled back in one last time to go on a road trip with his old friends to a stripper convention. Wacky hijinks ensue.

At least, they should. The road trip portion of the film is steadfastly episodic, to a degree that you feel like you're binge-watching half-hours of the Magic Mike sitcom back-to-back-to-back. And that sitcom is only occasionally as funny as you want it to be. There are a couple of fun moments, like newcomer Gabriel Iglesias joking about how he can replace Matthew McConaughey, and Joe Manganiello's impromptu performance in a gas station convenience store. But there are far more dry scenes like the world's most boring beach party, and a never-ending gab session with Andie MacDowell and her "desperate housewife" friends.

The movie actually digs a rather deep, dull hole for itself, until the finale swings things back to average. The final 20 minutes sees the gang performing at the convention, and each of the returning cast gets his own solo number. Some are far better than others, but as a whole, it brings the glitz and flash better than anything from the first movie. Still, you either have to endure until you reach that finale, or just fast forward to it.

So, like its predecessor, I'd give Magic Mike XXL a C. Fool me twice, I guess. Shame on me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Turning to Dust

At long last, I've reached the final installment of Hugh Howey's Silo series, Dust. After eight novellas (compiled in two collections), Dust is a full length novel to cap off the story. Describing its plot without spoiling the story up to this point is nigh impossible; suffice it to say that flashback time is over, and all three of the major running characters share turns at the forefront of a race to the climax.

I'll start by saying that the series as a whole is very much worth reading. That established, I must also say that the ending didn't entirely meet my hopes and expectations. I had to sit with it a while to see if I could figure out why, and eventually hit on a "role reversal" as an explanation.

In a way, I'd compare the ending of the Silo books to the end of the television series Lost. The two really don't have a lot in common, actually; I'm thinking more of how people reacted to the series finale of Lost. The vocal majority of Lost's fans had become caught up in the show's convoluted mysteries. They seemed to be looking for a finale that would explain more. For me, Lost was always a series about its characters, with the various island mysteries a distant second in terms of interest. In my opinion, the series finale served up a very fitting, very emotional conclusion for all the characters, and so I was in the minority made perfectly happy by the ending.

With Silo, the shoe is kind of on the other foot. Dust absolutely provides a fitting ending to the journeys of all the characters introduced throughout the series. There's a spectrum there -- happy and sad, definitive and open-ended, but I don't think you really could ask for much more out of the book from a character standpoint. The problem is, there are a lot of off-screen characters for whom things are not resolved. Indeed, if you really think about what will happen in the wake of Dust's finale for "everyone else," the future is looking awfully bleak. It's a really sour note opposing the "music" Howey is trying to craft here.

But like I said, the series overall remains worth your time. I'd give Dust a B; it's not a masterful finale, but it's still a reasonably good book.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Parting Shot

Most critics heaped lavish praise upon the March 22nd episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., in which (SPOILERS!) the team was torn asunder as Hunter and Bobbi were disavowed and forced to leave the team. Much as I want to agree with the critical mass, I find I just can't do it -- my main thought, watching the episode, was how it all just didn't make any sense.

First of all, it's worth noting that removing these two characters from the team was not an internal creative decision made by the show's writers. Instead, a spinoff series is being setup for Bobbi and Lance, a "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" style globe-trotting adventure called Marvel's Most Wanted. Were it not for the spinoff, and the need to write the two characters off of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this story line would never have come to pass.

And that's the problem. Hunter and Morse have been nothing but fantastic for the series. The play well both off each other and off the other characters. They are the most consistent and successful source of comic relief (particularly Hunter). They're best with the fight choreography (outside of Ming-Na Wen as May). Season 2 marked a sudden and sharp improvement over season 1 -- for several reasons, but in large part because of the addition of these two characters. Most Wanted may well be a great show (if it even gets picked up), but I can't help but feel like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to be worse for not having these two around.

But fine, let's just accept the scenario, that these two had to go. Even then, I just can't buy into the particular way it all went down, on any level. It feels like Bobbi and Hunter have gotten out of worse scrapes, and that Coulson has extracted his agents from tighter traps, than this one. This is what takes these two down? And even accepting that Coulson had no choice but to disavow the two as agents, how does that actually help them? Does it seem credible to you that the Russians would just let them go after everything that went down?

The nonsensical character behavior, the feeling that these stakes weren't high enough, and the lack of a clear A to B to C in the plot -- all proved too big an obstacle to me getting pulled into the episode. No question, everyone was acting their asses off, especially in the "Spies' Goodbye" scene near the end of the episode. But it felt like they were manufacturing emotion that hadn't been earned.

So I'm going to have to go against the crowd. In fact, I'd call this the least effective episode of the show this season. I give "Parting Shot" a C+.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Inside Man

As I've recounted my adventures in skiing, I've fallen behind on new episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I'll start by backtracking a few weeks to "The Inside Man," the March 15th installment that focused on General Talbot's first mission with -- and immediate betrayal of -- the team.

I should say right away that Talbot has never really done it for me as a character. He just doesn't seem in the same league as villains and quasi-villains like Garrett, Ward, and Cal. And I suppose he was never meant to be. But he just seems borderline inept, a person that Coulson should be able to run circles around on even a bad day. So I was unimpressed by his "shocking" double-cross; if anything, I was disappointed Coulson didn't see it coming from a mile away.

But at least the situation had some depth lurking beneath it. If Talbot is going to be a more regular fixture on the show, he needs to be rounded out as a character. Giving him a family -- which was being leveraged against him to force him into a double-cross -- is a good step. At the same time, this also made Malick a more credible character too, getting him off the sidelines and doing something more menacing than twirling his figurative mustache.

Yet I'm still looking for more when it comes to "Ward." The final scene, where he devoured five victims to regenerate himself, was a good start, but I feel like I need to know what exactly he's doing to bring Inhumans to his side before I really start to respect him as an adversary.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the episode. Because, hooray, another heist! And it was loaded with pithy one-liners from May, Bobbi, and Hunter. ("I love you." "I don't hate you quite as much." -- That might be some of my favorite banter on the show, ever.) And if the sudden conflict between Daisy and Lincoln seemed a bit unearned, at least it served to put some nuance into their relationship. We're still definitely in the "build up" stage of a multi-episode arc, but it does at least seem to be building.

I'd say "The Inside Man" merits a B. On to next week... er, I mean, this week. Next episode. Whatever.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

All's Well That Ends Well

My final day skiing at Steamboat Springs. It's the coldest day yet. It's actually snowing. Again, let's review my current abilities/liabilities:
  • I still hear the voice of my day one instructor insisting on Bad Lesson #1: Always Lean Forward, even though I'm personally feeling like that's not really always true. But he must know what he's talking about, right? So I must still be doing something wrong.
  • Bad Lesson #2: 30 Degrees of a Circle? Sure, We'll Call That a Wedge. Who wants to eat too big a slice of "pizza?"
  • Bad Lesson #3: Left Means Right, Right Means Left. Alright, this I've got this now. Oranges are orange, and skiing is like skating. Duh.
  • Bad Lesson #5: Just to Make Sure Your Weight Is Off Your Uphill Foot During a Turn, Tap Your Ski. I'm actually not even consciously thinking about this bad advice. It's just that my day two ski instructor was so insistent on it for a while that I'm occasionally doing it without even thinking about it.
So there's now nine of us in all who are planning to ski together, four of them little kids. The kids have also all learned to ski for the first time on this trip, by the way. But kids being pliable both physically and mentally, they've all got it. I myself still feel like a big rig on a snowy mountain pass: I'd feel more safe with a series of runaway truck ramps around. So I suggest, what if we all split up first? We'll meet up after lunch and then ski as a group -- giving me an hour-and-a-half to try to tighten things up a bit. The motion carries, so my husband and I are off on our own to tackle my first true, full-length ski run. I'll lead, and he'll follow me.

What happens next is not a total disaster, but it's not pretty either. I'm curving all over the slope where I can, not looking great but at least staying upright. Mostly. Until, that is, whenever we get to a narrowing of the trail. Then I'm careening down it, getting a bit panicked, reacting badly, and wiping out.

This happens a couple of times. I complain about how my left leg just seems to be shot today. I feel like I can slow down with my right, but my left is useless. My husband agrees, I should try to focus more on my left leg. I don't realize it at the time, but he's holding back some advice and just trying to be purely supportive.

We continue along the trail, getting about halfway down the mountain. I wipe out a couple more times, complaining now that I'm just so tired, that this is already about 20 times longer than I've ever been skiing in one go. Again, nothing but encouragement from my husband. He's already been skiing with some of the kids on day one, and he tells me, "you're faster than they are." Not that I'm trying to be. (But indeed, when we later checked the app we downloaded for this occasion, we found that I'd topped out at 20.2 mph on this run. Right before one of my crashes, I'd imagine.)

I happen to notice that as he's standing there, waiting for me to get back up and get my skis back on, he's actually leaning back. Way back. Hmmm, I think.
  • Bad Lesson #1: Always Lean Forward.
We start down the trail again. Now when I'm trying to slow down, I don't feel hesitant about it -- I lean back a bit. And I now have considerably more control. I'm even able to stop a few times to rest without falling over first. But I still suffer another crash or two. Something's just not right, and now I'm willing to just say it straight out. "I'm not getting this!"

My husband decides to risk the nightmare scenario and actually say something that's not blind Everyone's a Unique and Special Snowflake praise. "Every time you've fallen, it's because you lifted your left foot. Why are you doing that?"

"I'm doing that?"

"Yeah. You catch the front of your ski on the ground and trip over it."

For a few seconds, I can't imagine why in the hell would I be doing that. Then suddenly, I remember.
  • Bad Lesson #5: Just to Make Sure Your Weight Is Off Your Uphill Foot During a Turn, Tap Your Ski.
I get back up, and now the foremost thought in my mind is to keep both my feet planted, no matter what. We get the rest of the way down the mountain, with I believe only one more wipeout.

The entire run has taken more than an hour, so it's actually time to meet the whole gang for lunch. But as it turns out, the extra cold conditions combined with days of exhausting activity have taken the last of what the kids had to give. They've all decided to call it a day after lunch. There will be no group ski run. Which is a slight disappointment to me, but more of a profound relief, because I really don't want to end up apologizing to a close friend for accidentally mowing down their little kid.

So it's time for a second run, just the two of us. We're going to go the same way we went before. Just remember, keep the legs planted, keep the legs planted, keepthelegsplanted. I lead, he follows.

We stop a bit more frequently this time (once on account of a ski student who is having as much trouble as I am and is actually stopped right in the middle of a narrow path; I feel his pain). I stay upright for longer stretches. I avoid tapping my skis for no damn reason whatsoever. But still, every now and then, I just get a bit too fast to be comfortable, and then topple over in a heap.

On my maybe third or fourth fall, maybe two-thirds of the way down the mountain, I exclaim in exasperation, "I just can't slow down!"

"Well, you're not snowplowing."

"I'm trying to."

"If your feet aren't outside your hips, you're not snowplowing."




  • Bad Lesson #2: Sure, We'll Call That a Wedge.
The rest of the run is what I'm going to call a Half Chumbawamba. I get back up again, but I do not get knocked down.

In the grip of a sudden rush of adrenaline, I really want to try again... though it did seem to be getting colder, and another whole hour on the slopes didn't seem like a good idea. We decided to catch a chair lift that only went up about half as far as the runs we'd done so far. It would let us try a different trail. And maybe, if I was up to it, there was this short little blue spur we could take -- just so I could say I had done something other than a green.

This last run was slow. Probably painfully slow and boring for my husband. But I was just thrilled at being able to actually slow down now whenever I wanted, and was really making use of this new skill. I recall just one fall on this entire final run... when we suddenly realized we were about to miss the opportunity to take that little blue-rated spur. We were on the top of a steep slope, the green run above, the blue "detour" below. Getting down that slope proved more than I could handle; I fell twice just trying to do that. But once we'd made it to the bottom, it was smooth (if slow) sailing the rest of the way.

Part of me wished that wasn't the last day of skiing. I'd only just gotten the hang of it. But I definitely couldn't have handled any more. It turns out that when you're doing it right, your legs actually do ache the way everyone tells you they will.

We headed down the stairs to the locker where we'd stored our stuff. My husband casually tossed out still one more revelation: "Pro tip for the stairs. Move all the way to the front." That was spot on too, as my suddenly relieved shins could attest.

As friends arrived back at the condo that night, I repeatedly told the story of how all this time, it seemed that my real problem with skiing was that I needed a better teacher. My husband deflected, saying he had no idea how he could have got me started with the basics. But I really couldn't stop gushing at the way that with just a few razor sharp insights, he'd undone two days of bad habits and cut through a fog of frustration. (And I'm happy to gush again here and now.)

So, the road was rough. (And kudos to you, if you've read through all this.) But all's well that ends well. And it was maybe even better this way, for the reminder that I'm very lucky.

(Don't be jealous of my amazing technique. And notice my husband at the right, leaning back.)

(Addendum: As this saga has been unfolding, in anticipation of this final post, my husband said to me yesterday, "Just so you know, you can snow plow with your feet inside your hips. But that's advanced." I smiled back, "Well, I'm not advanced. You can teach me that next season.")

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Getting "Over" It

Let's briefly review my status as a skier after one day of lessons:
  • I was just beginning to sense that there were exceptions to Bad Lesson #1: Always Lean Forward. I was kinda-sorta-maybe learning that to exert any kind of real control, I needed to do something that, in my mind, felt like leaning backward.
  • I was deeply lost in the weeds with Bad Lesson #2: You're Basically Wedging As Long As Your Skis Aren't Parallel; If It Isn't Working, Press Down Harder. I didn't even know this was a Bad Lesson at this point. I just flat out didn't understand why "pizza" wasn't working.
  • I was equally lost in Bad Lesson #3: Here's How You Turn; You Don't Need to Understand WHY It Works. Apply pressure, and remember that it's backwards from how you think it ought to be, because it is.
So, skiing at this point was a wholly unnatural activity that took 100% of my concentration and still only worked some of the time. The weather was starkly different from the day before; where yesterday the sun was shining, today was chilly and clouded over. And now I was standing under the level "2" flag, meeting a new instructor for a new day.

As she was trying to learn everyone's names, more students continued to arrive, until we had double the maximum 5 per group. So she was on the phone, arranging for another instructor to come and take half of us. "Alright," she asks everyone, "who's feeling like a more aggressive 2?" Me! I want to learn this thing, dammit! The group split, conveniently, exactly in half, with five people wanting to be more cautious with the day's lessons, and me and four others vowing to really push ourselves. This was going to be perfect, I thought.

Little did I know that in that single moment, that decision to go with the one half of the group, I'd just wasted the next four hours of my life. It just hadn't actually happened yet.

My class of five consisted of me, a cocksure 19 year old kid who didn't want to listen to anyone (much less his ski instructor), an older gentleman who said he had been skiing one time before (and only later admitted that the one time had been over 20 years ago), and a couple from Argentina who spoke scarcely any English (and thus did not understand what the word "aggressive" meant, nor that they should have been in the "never ever skied before" group 1).

The instructor wanted to get a sense of what we all knew before taking us up on the mountain. So first stop, that "kids' hill," that impossible slalom course of 100+ unpredictable first- and second-graders. I volunteered to be the first to attempt to go down it. And down I went, full speed, completely out of control. At the bottom, I desperately tried to pull off the hockey stop I'd accidentally learned to do the day before. But my mind was a swirl of "lean forward no lean back the right foot is the wrong foot but justapplymorepressureandfortheloveofGodstopstopstopstopstop!" I crashed quite spectacularly, injuring no children, but quite seriously bruising my dignity.

My performance was the best of the class.

The instructor knew she couldn't take us up on the mountain. And she certainly couldn't stay there on the kids' hill. So it was back to that gentle driveway slope from day one, the place where you couldn't pick up any speed if you tried. The place where you couldn't truly learn a thing.

Well... to be fair, almost couldn't learn a thing. Because the first thing the instructor did when she got us back to the basic hill was she took all our ski poles away. Go down the hill without them, she challenged us. Just use your weight to steer, and really focus on making that work. Which was actually, briefly, helpful. The idea of really focusing on your legs was helpful, anyway. The words she used to describe the technique were a nonsensical disaster.

Imagine you're carrying a tray of drinks, she said. And when you're turning, keep pressure on your downhill leg (that makes sense), and then toss your drinks over the hill (huh?). No wait, seriously. Huh? This was Bad Lesson #4, though in terms of how completely nonsensical and confusing an instruction it was, I probably ought to rank it #1. We'll plumb the depths of this insanity in a moment, but for the moment, just hang on to the metaphor in the back of your mind. Because right now, remember that I'm still on this bunny hill, this tiny slope where I don't really have to understand anything or do it right to stay upright and look like I know what I'm doing.

We stayed on this hill for the next hour-and-a-half, not using our poles. Down the hill, practicing S curves. Up the magic carpet. Repeat. I didn't fall once in the entire time. I would occasionally try to approach the instructor with a question, some attempt to learn "what do I do next?" But the rest of my group had her thoroughly occupied. She was wrangling the unruly 19-year-old, teaching the "I skied once two decades ago" man as if from scratch, and trying to pantomime everything for the Argentinians, who didn't even do her the courtesy of watching her half the time she was talking to them.

So I guess I'll just keep doing this thing I can do. S curves down, up the carpet, S curves down, up the carpet. At one point, as I was riding up, a different ski instructor with a class of his own smiles at me and says, "I've been watching you. You've totally got this." It was meant to be encouraging, but I actually found it completely disheartening. What the hell am I doing here? Not learning anything.

And neither was the rest of the class. They weren't even getting the turns right. So the instructor had everyone try another drill. When you're in a turn, take your uphill foot and actually stamp it up and down a couple times to really make sure you've got your weight off of it. It didn't seem to help anyone else much. And for me, it was worse than that -- it would later prove to be Bad Lesson #5.

Finally, it was time to break for lunch. I was too discouraged to have much of an appetite. We agreed to all meet back up at the Kids' Hill/Obstacle Course in an hour. I met my husband and my friend for lunch, and they could tell I was feeling down. I loosely talked about me maybe just blowing off the rest of the class, but I couldn't quite pull the trigger on it. I absent-mindedly nibbled at a Nutri-Grain bar for 20 minutes before deciding I wasn't going to wait for the damn instructor. I was going to go to that hill and just start trying by myself.

That lunch meetup spot had a perfect view of the kids' hill, so I was painfully aware of being watched by my husband and friend as I tried on my own to conquer this embarrassingly simple task. Oh so cautiously, I made it down a few times, then waited in a massive line of children to ride back to the top. I wasn't falling, but I wasn't really in control either. And at a ratio of 10 seconds down to 10 minutes back up, I wasn't really getting any effective practice.

Eventually, my class showed up... though the 19-year-old had done what I had not. He'd decided he'd wasted enough of his time. And then there were four. Which might have been cause for hope. Except that as bad as I felt I was, the other three continued to be worse. Once again, it was clear we were endangering every kid in the practice area.

At this point, I just-short-of-begged our instructor to just take us up the mountain. Later, she promised, but first, we were going back to the bunny hill. Again. I just about lost it. Instead, I texted my husband that I was going to blow off the rest of the class after all.

But then, four hours into this not-quite-actually-skiing purgatory, the Argentinians vanished as well. Just took off without saying anything to anybody. So now I had something bordering on a private lesson -- just the teacher, me, and the one guy who at least actually had been skiing before (even if it had been 20 years ago). So our instructor agreed to take us up the Preview slope. I quickly recanted my decision to quit in another text message: I was going to tough out the lesson a little while longer.

I still had no real control over my speed. Instead of trying to correct my flawed wedge, the instructor encouraged me to slow down with wide S curves. There were three problems with that. First, the sun had continued to hide all day, and we were on the last part of the last ski run, the place where literally every path in the entire resort eventually emptied out. It was a sheet of ice. Second, Bad Lesson #4, the terrible "tray of drinks" analogy. Third, Bad Lesson #5, the tap your foot for no reason advice.

On the bunny slope, with no real speed and all the time in the world to think, I couldn't really get into any trouble. Up on an actual run (however short), it didn't take much to get into a bad situation. And every time I tried to react instinctively, my instinct was wrong.

So here I am, turning-turning-turning. "Tap your uphill leg!" shouts the instructor. (Bad Lesson #5.) Okay, I'm trying to ski on one leg.... and wipeout!

New attempt. Turning-turning-turning, coming back a little fast.... "Throw your drinks over the mountain!" shouts the instructor. (Bad Lesson #4.) Okay, like this, wait no, like that... and wipeout!

"Over the mountain!" barks my instructor as I'm getting up, as overtly frustrated as she's been all day. "You're not listening." I snap back, matching her tone. "I did exactly what you said!" I insist.

But before an argument can really develop, suddenly I understand her totally screwed up analogy. In her head, when she's serving a tray of drinks and then dumps them "over the mountain," she's imagining pouring them out all over the ground. Downhill. I, like any normal person who has ever climbed a hill in their lives, am imagining that "over the mountain" means... duh, getting over the damn mountain. Uphill. I explain that her image is backwards and causing me nothing but confusion, and mentally scratch a huge line through Bad Lesson #4.

Suddenly, things start to go a bit better. I still can't really slow down any way other than taking these giant S curves sure to surprise anyone behind me, but it is kinda-sorta working out. "Try to tighten up your curves a little," suggests the instructor. "Just like you're skating. Just push off."

Well, son of a bitch!

Perhaps this should have been obvious from the beginning of day one. But remember that my day 1 instructor led with all this pressure/monkey-grip nonsense that instantly made skiing highly technical and even more highly unnatural. It's like someone tried to describe an orange to me by saying it's shaped like a ball and has a thin rind, and it's a citrus fruit and you can eat it, and it's sectioned inside, and juicy and sweet and a little bit acidic... and forgot to mention that the damn thing was actually the color orange. Again, probably should have been obvious... but way to bury the damn lead!

Suddenly, I can mentally scratch off Bad Lesson #3 as well. I don't need to devote my every thought to the concept that "this whole thing works backwards," because it's the same freaking thing as skating. Push this way, go that way. Probably I should be embarrassed that it's taken seven hours to reach this point, but I'm too damn happy that it just finally feels natural.

We reached the bottom of the hill and I was ready to go again, to actually try to put my fledgling comprehension to use. But nope. 3:00. Class over. And after a long, tiring day of, you know, real skiing, my husband and friends were ready to call it a day and head back to the condo.

But alright, I've decided. I'm not going to spend one more minute in one of these worse-than-useless ski lessons. Everyone -- my husband, my friends, their kids -- seemed excited at the notion that tomorrow, our third and final day of skiing, could actually be a day where we just all ski together.

Maybe this whole fiasco could finish up strong.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Rough Start

So, skiing. Though I've lived the majority of my life in Colorado, I had never done it. I was the New Yorker who has never been to the theater, the Hawaiian who has never been surfing... pick your analogy. For a long time, it had seemed too expensive, and then I just sort of kept coasting that way on inertia. But now, on my trip to Steamboat Springs, I was going to give it a try.

(I have to briefly derail the story for a moment here, because I'm about to use the words "my husband" here on the blog for the first time. It's a big deal to me for many reasons, not the least of which is the role he's eventually going to play when -- a few days/posts from now -- I reach the end of this story.)

In advance of our trip, my husband had found what seemed like the ideal package for my first ski experience. For around $60-$80 more than the price of a three-day lift ticket, I'd get equipment rental and three days of ski lessons -- five hours a day, minus a lunch break -- with guaranteed results. (Or your continued lessons are free until you're skiing green runs.)

If we'd ever actually talked about him just teaching me himself, the conversation was so brief I've already forgotten it. That's the stuff that cliche spousal meltdowns are made of, right? One person yelling, "Why can't you just listen and do what I'm telling you?!" and the other yelling back, "Why can't you explain it right?!" Except the less rational version of that, with more insults. So even though my husband has been skiing for more than 25 years, and apparently took to it like an expert in half a day, it just seemed like a Bad Idea.

In retrospect, I was getting instruction from my husband (and also my friend) from the moment I was putting my ski boots on. Which I'll just come right out and admit, I was completely unable to do without help. Oh, push there to loosen the strap? Thank you. Oh, don't tuck anything inside the boot? Okay, got it.

And let me start by noting that even before click into a ski, walking in ski boots is the first awkward moment where you wonder how anybody ever put this whole idea together in the first place. The slow-motion kaiju walk it forces you into isn't so bad, but stairs are kind of ridiculous. Going up is manageable, but going down makes you choose between an awkward sideways shuffle or a forward-facing serial trust fall exercise. And though you'd love to cling to a handrail with a crushing death grip, you can't -- because you're carrying skis and poles.

Over the next two days, I'd learn more about teaching than about skiing. As in, what makes a bad teacher. By the end of "Skiing, Day 3," I'd come to believe that teaching is maybe only 10% what you know, and 90% being able to explain it as many different ways as possible, until you find the one that connects with your student. If you only know 2 or 3 ways, and #4 is the one that would have worked, then the whole enterprise is a failure

I slowly made my way to the level 1 flag, for the group of people who had "never ever" skied before. There I joined four other newbies and one instructor to head to a small hill just off the main slope. Hill is a generous word here; there's more slope to my driveway. But it did run a couple hundred feet. Not that any of us could stay upright for that long.

And not that we even started with that. First, it was all about making sure your boots were on properly (but I'd already been taught that), getting your skis on and off, and leaning forward. Always leaning forward. Always. In the long run, I'd come to think of this as Bad Lesson #1, the first example of what would be the recurring theme of my ski lesson experience: the words used by the instructor to describe a thing did not remotely match the way my mind perceived the feeling when I finally (finally!) got it right.

I kind of understand the intent here, because a person in skis for the first time has about as much sense of balance as a newborn deer. And generally speaking, the moment a newbie leans back even a millimeter immediately precedes the moment he's splayed out on the ground. So sure, always lean forward seems like good advice to start with.

From there, we moved into the two basic positions, parallel and wedge... or as my instructor was unafraid to acknowledge everyone calls them, "french fry" and "pizza." (As South Park has made famous, if you french fry when you're suppose to pizza, you're gonna have a bad time.) This was what I'd later come to think of as Bad Lesson #2, as my instructor really failed to lay out what constitutes an effective wedge in explicit terms. You know how you sometimes cut a slice of pizza in half for a toddler? That's the kind of pizza that was apparently good enough.

For this little hill, it was. After a few trips up the magic carpet and down at a slow creep, most of the group seemed able to stay upright most of the time. So we moved on to turning. My instructor characterized it as applying pressure to one foot or the other. I'm going to characterize it as Bad Lesson #3, because it was delivered without logic or context -- an abstract mental picture of monkey toeing objects that in no way explained the bass-ackwardness of "right to go left, left to go right."

So now I'm running a "pat head, rub tummy" scenario nested inside another "pat head, rub tummy" scenario. I'm constantly having to tell myself that the whole steering thing works backwards, and just when I'm starting to get any kind of leverage for this pressure thing, I remember I'm supposed to always be leaning forward like someone is holding me by the suspender straps. Nonsensical as it all felt, it actually didn't take too long before I went down the hill a half dozen times, turning, without falling over.

All of that took just shy of two hours. So we all broke for lunch, after which we met up at a separate, steeper hill. And this is when everything immediately fell apart.

This second hill was more than twice as steep. And shorter. And it ended at barrier right before the sidewalk fronting all the restaurants and shops at the ski resort -- so no margin for error. And hilariously, incongruously, this was "the kids' hill." It seems that most people who are ever going to learn to ski in their lives do it before they've reached the double digits in age. There were literally a hundred children -- most, I'd wager, 5 to 7 years old -- swarming over every last bit of this hill. They were criss-crossing any path you'd think to go down, cutting in line at the magic carpet, plopping down in the snow right in the line of fire. Everywhere.

Of course, you're required to be the adult in this situation. Losing control and smacking into a fellow adult student is embarrassing but forgivable. Mowing down a half dozen first graders, and then getting mad at them for cutting in front of you at the magic carpet line, would be monstrous. So at the slightest hint of trouble, good manners demands that you wipe out on purpose, then wait patiently behind 30 kids for the chance to wipe out on purpose again.

It took about 15 minutes and maybe 3 "runs" in these conditions for our instructor to rightly conclude that we weren't ready to ski in this kind of environment. So he decided to take us all back to the first hill. Which was good in theory, except that it was no longer possible to learn anything there either. No real control was required to stay upright there. My group and I had reached a perfectly terrible level of skiing ability -- unable to improve in any way, yet a total menace to everyone around us.

After an hour wasted on the little hill, my instructor finally seemed to note that 3:00 (and the end of the lesson) was fast approaching-- and he was supposed to have had us all on a slope somewhere by this point. So he decided to take us to Preview, a 3-chair lift that carried you up just a few hundred yards so that you could ski down the very tail end of the mountain.

By this point in time, I was kinda-sorta able to control my speed through a dizzying series of the widest, longest turns you could imagine. And a lot of experimentation. In violation of everything the instructor had drilled into me, it really seemed as though leaning back was the right thing to exert some small measure of control. I was "unlearning" Bad Lesson #1. In reality, I believe I was actually properly squatting over the skis for the first time. But it felt to my body and mind as though I was leaning way back. So it was "cheating." But it worked! But it was probably a bad habit that was going to get in the way of some future lesson. But it worked!

I did get manage to get down this short Preview run with only three or four falls (half of them deliberate, as an alternative to whacking some hapless skier). On a chart, I'd put this experience much closer to sliding down the mountain than skiing down it. But was I maybe starting to get the hang of it a bit? I mean, I'd even managed twice to stop in desperation, by violently contorting myself into what my instructor proudly praised as my first hockey stops. (Thanks. I totally meant to do that, of course.) Hmm... maybe I should try this little Preview hill again, to really cement the feeling of starting to get it.

Nope. 3:00 has come. The Preview lift, meant specifically for lessons like this, has closed. My time with the instructor has come to a close as well.

I met back up with my husband and friends, and we returned to our condo for games and beer. My husband seemed to have had a good time that day, doing multiple runs all over the more advanced parts of the mountain. Which had always been the plan: to not have him chained to me, fighting frustration as I tried to get my act together. So at least he'd had fun.

Many people asked: was I aching all over, just as they'd said I would? No, I replied. The one place I hurt most was my right hand, where I'd once made a foolish effort to catch myself instead of just taking a fall as I'd done dozens of other times throughout the day. I didn't hurt, I replied, because I never actually did any skiing all day. It was a joke, but a sort of gallows humor kind of joke. And nestled in it, the truth that I really hadn't actually done it right all day long.

But the instructor had said I was ready to come back to the "2" group the next day, and progress forward. Surely the next day would go better, right?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Spring Forward

Hello everyone! I'm back, as is the blog. And as per my tradition after a vacation, I'm going to recount the adventures -- mostly for my own later benefit, but also in the hopes that you might get a tiny bit of enjoyment out of it too.

This was a group trip up to Steamboat Springs, all of us staying in a suite graciously shared by some good friends. Skiing by day, drinking and playing board games by night; that was the plan. And on the first night, the eve of the Daylight Saving switch, visiting Steamboat Springs' most well-known non-skiing attraction: Strawberry Park Hot Springs. About 10 minutes outside of the town, at the end of a long dirt road, you'll find this idyllic setting.

But I didn't take the lovely photo you see above, in large part because it was well after sunset when we visited the place. There are virtually no lights up there. Those in the know -- which did not include us -- had brought glow sticks and waterproof flashlights to find their way around. We relied on their occasional light, and an iron grip on any handrail we happened across.

I understand there are something like six pools of varying temperatures at the site, but we never found them all as we hobbled around in the dark. But we did start out at the hottest of the hot, a lobster boil of intensity that seemed at first unbearable, then became briefly pleasant, before soon encouraging us to find literally safer waters.

The bulk of the night, we stayed in a nice, jacuzzi-esque pool, looking up at the abundant stars until clouds slowly rolled in and a light, dreamlike snow began to fall. Only a stone wall separated that pool from the near-freezing water of the pond (river? did I mention I couldn't see?) outside. Whenever you wanted a moment's relief from the heat, you could splash some of that cold water on your face, or sit on the steps, half out of the springs and enjoying the brisk mountain air.

After dark, Strawberry Park Hot Springs goes "clothing optional." I don't know if this is the reason for the lack of lighting or a consequence of it, but you might well not know about the policy without reading the brochure. From literally just four or five feet away, it was too dark to see more than a person's silhouette. From ten feet away, you couldn't even be sure if your familiar friend of years was in front of you, unless you could hear them speak. So if you've ever wondered if public nudity is in your nature, this is an extremely low risk environment in which to give it a go.

Frankly, we probably did this part of the trip all backwards. We should have gone to the Hot Springs after days of skiing, to relieve sore muscles. Nevertheless, it was great experience, not to be missed.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Gone Skiing

In a collective 27 years of living in Colorado, I've somehow managed to have never gone skiing. The time has come to correct that. So the blog is in hiatus for the week as I go hit the slopes... hopefully, not too often literally.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Bouncing Back

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned from hiatus this week, and unlike this week's splashy new Inhuman "Yo-Yo," it didn't quite hit the ground running. Instead of forging ahead with the ongoing story, the episode was more of a "restatement of thesis," the sort of thing I suppose you expect after three months away.

So it was that we're again making contact with a newly made Inhuman, and Daisy is again trying to convince them to join the team. It's a formula that's already been played this season, though they did at least change things up a bit by putting Mack more at the center of that story line, and by adding a language barrier in setting the story in Bogota. Yo-Yo/Elena will surely return, so we'll see how key she is to the narrative then. For now, though, this was the part of the episode that mostly felt "been there, done that" -- and it got more screen time than anything else.

The Hydra/"Ward" storyline felt to me like another example of reminding the audience where things sat, without actually moving things forward. "Ward" sat on a couch watching an increasing number of TVs throughout the episode (reminding me a bit of Leeloo from The Fifth Element), but we really didn't get more of a sense of what he is, what he wants, or why he's dangerous. We will learn that soon enough, I'm sure, but I was hoping for at least a tidbit after so many months off.

On the other hand, Coulson on the rampage continues to be interesting. He may have taken care of Ward (he thinks; and he mostly-sorta did), but now he wants Malick. Having Coulson of all people haul the old "Tahiti machine" out of mothballs is a really powerful statement on how badly he wants revenge. So is May's observation that he's "joined the Calvary." I love the use of the character history the show has built over time.

And then there was the tantalizing opening scene. Ordinarily, I'd say that the "flash forward open" is pretty played out as a narrative device on television these days. But I found myself eager to know how the next three months of episodes are going to take us to some kind of catastrophe in space.

Now that the ball is rolling again, I'll hope for a bit more momentum next week. I give this episode a B.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Black Mark

Just this week, a brief story circulated in the news that Tilikum, the most famous (and infamous) killer whale of SeaWorld Orlando, is in rapidly declining health. Quite by coincidence, I had just watched the film Blackfish the night before.

In case you didn't hear of it when it premiered in 2013, Blackfish is a documentary on SeaWorld and the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite began making it following an attack in which SeaWorld Orlando's largest whale, Tilikum, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau. The documentary highlights this as the third fatality involving Tilikum, and convincingly argues that (despite the scapegoating of Brancheau) there was ample evidence to think an incident like this was inevitable. In a series of interviews with marine biologists and former SeaWorld trainers, the film powerfully argues that while killer whales are quite social in the wild, they can't help but be driven mad by prolonged captivity.

If you're the sort of person who imagines two sides to every story, Blackfish is not the documentary for you. Though the film does include token sound bites from one or two people attempting to defend SeaWorld, they come off either deluded or pathological alongside everything else. The family of Dawn Brancheau have sought to distance themselves from the film since its release. Some interview subjects stated afterward that they felt blindsided by the tone the finished film had taken. And of course, SeaWorld has argued steadfastly against the movie.

And yet I find myself not caring about any of that in the final analysis. If there's any merit to the claim of the movie being manipulative, I say it performs exactly the sort of emotional manipulation a good movie is supposed to. It's expertly crafted to inspire sorrow and/or outrage, and you're never conscious of being steered. The movie may well leave you with slight guilt even to own a dog or a cat, and inconsolable at the living conditions of these killer whales. It's a powerfully emotional film. (And, notably, even the film's few detractors seem to stop short of saying it actually lies about anything.)

I now understand the confusion over Blackfish not receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Though I can't claim to have seen all the films that were in that year's race, it certainly feels like this one should have been in the hunt. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

A Squeeze of Lime

I'm a year late to the party, but I've recently taken up listening to the breakout podcast Serial. (Perhaps because I'm only coming to it now, I'm enjoying season 2 just as much as season 1, which seems to be a rare opinion.) Serial in turn has breadcrumbed me into other things to occupy my regular commute. And that's how I came to discover Limetown.

Limetown is a podcast by Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers, widely described as "Serial meets The X-Files," and I can't imagine a tighter or more accurate explanation. It's the fictional story of a public radio journalist's investigation into a bizarre and unexplained tragedy. All 300+ people living in a cloistered town/research facility went missing after a mysterious disaster, leaving only questions behind. What was going on in Limetown? What happened to all its inhabitants?

The podcast unfolds over six full-length episodes (with several extra two- or three-minute interstitial segments peppered throughout). Though it starts off very deeply in the mode of a "fictional Serial," it quickly and increasingly morphs into something of an old-time radio drama. The production values are solid, with pretty of background sounds to sell the reality, and well-deployed music to heighten the suspense.

The story will be instantly engrossing to anyone who has ever been hooked by the ongoing story line of a sci-fi TV show: Lost, Battlestar Galactica, or as mentioned before, The X-Files. But Limetown benefits from not having to be open-ended for an undefined number of years. While one could imagine "season one" being followed some day by more episodes, it also works as a stand-alone tale. Each episode brings new answers to your questions, and by the end of all, you certainly feel that you know what happened in Limetown.

But compelling as the story is, it wouldn't be nearly as successful were it not for solid acting from a surprisingly gifted cast -- better than you might expect could be pulled together for a podcast (that at least started out small time). Most episodes involve the main journalist character (Lia Haddock) interviewing a single subject with new information to reveal. So it generally falls on a single performer to carry lengthy monologues, walking the line between plausible conversation and dramatically heightening the fiction. And while there are moments here and there where you feel the performance sail a bit over-the-top, those moments never really feel out of line with the atmosphere of "conspiracy dramas" you've no doubt seen on film or television. As a whole, the acting really works.

I suppose there might not be anything radically different or revelatory about Limetown. But it's a quite well-executed spooky mystery story. I give it a B+. If you're into podcasts or audiobooks, it's definitely worth a listen.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Hollywood Ending

I enjoyed the season (series?) finale of Agent Carter overall, though there were definitely some things it did better than others.

The wrap up of the major plot line, centered on Whitney Frost and zero matter, seemed a bit simple and tidy for my tastes. Frost lost any real menace she had in this final hour, suddenly reduced to a rambling loon scrawling on the walls. She was strangely ineffective in the final showdown, using none of her abilities and just knocking Semberly out before staring uselessly into the darkness until Our Heroes could easily take her out. Then she was back to a rambling loon again, this time in an asylum. Not a strong showing for someone who started out the season as a compelling villain.

But if the Macguffin was less than satisfying, the character beats were quite the opposite. Agent Carter has really leaned into character as a strength this season, and they saw that through to the end. Great one liners were given all around, and fun sight gags too. (Rose was riveting. Get it?)

And if this is the last we see of Peggy Carter on television, we at least got great final scenes between her and the other characters. Jarvis was thrilled just to give her a ride to the airport. She and Thompson had a final detente. (Very final, given the episode's coda.) And of course, Carter finally shared a kiss with Sousa.

I'm not sure if Agent Carter was ever meant to be the show about "the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D." -- but it does feel a bit incomplete if the show doesn't ever get there. And yet, the show definitely grew to be much more about the characters than the story. So perhaps it's going out on the right note after all. (I for one am not banking on a reprieve from ABC.)

I give "Hollywood Ending" a B. Next up, the return of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Edge of Mystery / A Little Song and Dance

I've fallen behind. Here we are, a week after the season finale of Agent Carter, yet I haven't written anything about the two-hour installment from the week before that. So hop with me into the wayback machine to revisit those two episodes, "The Edge of Mystery" and "A Little Song and Dance."

The first hour saw Whitney Frost corrupting Doctor Wilkes with vague promises of what he could do if he gained control of the zero matter within him. This story line felt a little backwards to me from what would have made the most sense. Wilkes has been a basically incorruptible character throughout the season, and if he'd suddenly felt the pull of the "dark side" after his sudden infusion of zero matter at the end of the episode, I think I'd have believed it more. Similarly, Frost has been rigidly scientific and concerned with acquiring power for herself throughout the season. If she'd suddenly been throwing everything into making Wilkes her willing henchman after he'd absorbed the zero matter, I'd understand her sudden interest. But as it all played out, I sort of questioned his sudden lack of morals and her sudden distraction from her own condition.

The material involving the rest of the characters worked much better for me, though. I liked the writing choice to not actually kill Ana, but still exact some price -- the loss of her ability to have children. Yes, it did but Jarvis on the predictable vengeance path, but actor James D'Arcy did a great job handling the emotional swings. There was also that nice moment where Sousa refused to let harm come to Carter, and his challenge to her that she would have done the same thing had the roles been reversed. And finally, Masters attacking Thompson (using the mind wipe device; nice callback) seemed to get Thompson out of the grey area and onto the team.

The second hour opened with Carter's bizarre dream sequence, which felt a bit hit and miss to me. I liked the moments where the characters in her vision actually had something meaningful to say. But mostly, it seemed like an excuse to let the writers go wild -- bringing back Angie from season one, letting Sousa throw away the crutch (and letting actor Enver Gjokaj sing and dance), showing Dottie one more (last?) time. It kind of felt like padding to an episode that was running short, fun though it was.

Once things got rolling though, there were lots of good "buddy cop movie" style scenes between Carter and Jarvis as they sniped at each other, and then reconciled, on their escape from the bad guys. Thompson had good material throughout the episode, working to help our heroes while still clearly working for his own best interests first; it felt honest to his character, without making him cartoonishly blind to some serious evil.

I'd say the first hour was worth a B, while the second deserves a B+. Together, they set things up nicely for a big finale... which, of course, those of you who care have likely already seen. But we'll get to that soon...

Friday, March 04, 2016

Line Item

Essays and think pieces about Netflix's Making a Murderer continue to pop up all over the internet. Often mentioned in passing are earlier examples of the "wrongful conviction documentary," like the first season of the Serial podcast, and the Paradise Lost series. And with reverence, some mention what many consider to be the granddaddy of the sub-genre, The Thin Blue Line.

Made in 1988 by filmmaker Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line looks at the Texas case of Randall Adams, imprisoned for the murder of a police officer. It's a case with no physical evidence and highly questionable eyewitness accounts. Adams was nevertheless convicted, primarily because (as the documentary argues) the only other viable suspect was 16 years old and therefore ineligible for the death penalty -- and forces of "justice" really wanted to take someone's life in exchange for the murdered officer.

Watching The Thin Blue Line today is surely nothing like the experience of seeing it in 1988 would have been, for so many reasons. For one, now that we have the other true crime stories I mentioned earlier, the case presented here seems shockingly simple. After you've seen Paradise Lost reveal evidence ignored at trial, heard Serial devote an entire episode to a single alternative suspect, or seen Making a Murderer systematically cast doubt on each piece of the prosecution's evidence, you expect more twists in the case of Randall Adams. But all it really boils down to is: Adams' story is a perfectly unconvincing blend of bizarre and routine, stacked against the testimony of four witnesses all with motives to either lie or overstate their certainty. No DNA, fibers, ballistics (in part because this murder occurred in the 70s). No nothing.

Another difference is that the ultimate outcome of this case is known. I suppose the same would be true for anyone who watched Paradise Lost today; I myself watched those films while appeals were still being pursued. But unlike Serial or Making a Murderer, cases that don't really have an "ending" as a fictional story would, you're a quick Google search away from finding out if Randall Adams was released or died in prison. I suppose it's no surprise that a decades-old story wouldn't feel as immediate, but it does turn out that immediacy is part of the intoxicating appeal of these true crime stories.

But because you're at a remove from this story, it's easier to evaluate it as a piece of filmmaking -- and there too, watching it today is very different from how seeing it in 1988 would have been. As in fiction movies, you get the sense that this documentary was creating techniques copied by later ones. Indeed, the way The Thin Blue Line introduces new wrinkles into its story is almost exactly how Making a Murderer does it -- all you're missing is the 20-second countdown before Netflix automatically starts playing the next episode. Other aspects have fallen by the wayside and look quite dated, such as the repeated reenactments of the police officer's murder, realized with spotty production values.

Still, The Thin Blue Line ultimately works. Just as 12 Angry Men is a towering ancestor of "courtroom drama" still worthy of respect, The Thin Blue Line is the same for crime documentaries. I give it a B.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Score of the Game

We're now less than two months away from the premiere of the sixth season of Game of Thrones. And as always between seasons, a soundtrack album has been released of the score composed by Ramin Djawadi for the previous season. Though this season 5 soundtrack certainly has its highlights, I'd say that overall, I've been less impressed with it than previous Game of Thrones releases.

For one thing, this collection includes several tracks (more than usual) that feel really reliant on the show's accompanying visuals. Tracks like "Jaws of the Viper," "Kneel for No Man," and "Before the Gods" are full of moody atmosphere, but their slow and sustained chords, without any perceptible meter, doesn't amount to much when isolated from the show itself. Perhaps they'd be good for a quiet meditation, were the notes not deliberately unsettling and dissonant to fit their absent subject matter.

There also aren't many instances of truly new themes on this album. There's an unsettling ostinato to represent the "House of Black and White" -- though it doesn't appear until halfway through the long track. A mournful cello takes the lead on "I Dreamt I Was Old," though it's not a melody you'd be able to hum after hearing it.

Still, there are some clever alterations to already established themes. The "Rains of Castamere" melody, for example, is used to powerful and unnerving effect in "Mother's Mercy" and "Atonement." The backing strings of the main title pop up occasionally to great effect: cutting against the booming 12/8 rhythm of "Blood of the Dragon," opening the tense "Hardhome, Pt. 2" in desperate double time, or hummed by a male soloist in the final track, "Throne for the Game."

But for me, there are really only three stand out tracks on the album. "Hardhome, Pt. 1" is tense action cue that makes great use of strings -- inexorably clicking in col legno percussion, screeching in sharp and sudden stabs, or skittering nervously like insects. "High Sparrow" embodies the titular character with the perfect use of a male choir; the melody sounds like something that was meant to be earnest and adoring, but that came out all twisted and sinister. Then there's "Son of the Harpy," another excellent use of choir. Harsh whispers, translated into one of the show's fictional languages, hiss and spit venom until thunderous drums start up and all hell breaks loose.

Unless you're a completist of Game of Thrones scores (which I guess at this point, I am), I can't recommend picking up this entire album just for three solid tracks. (Well, the "Main Titles" is on there too, but it comes on every album. It seems like by now, they could cut it in favor of a little more new music.) I'd give the season 5 soundtrack a C+ overall. If you're not an iTunes or Amazon type of cherry picker, you might as well skip it -- unless you're desperate to reconnect to the show and simply can't wait two more months.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

More Caucus Than You Can Handle

Since moving back to Colorado a decade ago, I've been registered as a Democrat. But I've never before decided to take part in the party caucus leading up to the presidential election. It wasn't that I felt extreme passion this year for a particular candidate. (Whoever the party candidate ends up being has my vote in November.) Rather, I was more interested in just seeing the process, to be able to say I'd done it.

I've heard that efforts are underway to convert Colorado to open primary voting for future elections. After tonight, all I can say is: sweet merciful crap, let that be true. Caucuses are a horror show. I feel like only the continued existence of the anachronistic and convoluted electoral college system keeps caucuses from being the most quaint and idiotic thing about U.S.elections.

Our caucus began with an unenthusiastic man reading the two and a half pages of rules (as required by law) in a stupefying drone. Before we even got to "the good stuff," half the room seemed ready to bolt for the door. Here were the people theoretically most invested in the political process, most of them suddenly questioning that decision.

There were five precincts meeting at our location, all in one big room. My precinct had obviously the lowest turnout. There was plenty of time to look around the room as our appointed "caucus chair" wrangled math and instructions she didn't really seem to understand, and I feel like none of the precincts I watched seemed like an ideal model of democracy in action.

We had my group, all essentially people with minds made up and no particular interest in trying to change anyone else's. We conducted our vote quietly, simply. Nobody seemed to want to say anything at all really. Lack of enthusiasm for the options? Certainty of entrenchment? Looking at the obvious demographics of old and young and seeing almost without fail how that translated into Bernie or Hillary voters?

Not that unbridled passion seemed a good way to go either. Multiple other precincts had moments where they cut through the dull wallah of the room with full throated shouting matches, angry questioning of people's ability to count, ear-piercing whistles for attention, and more. No one was going to catch flies with any of that vinegar.

What the hell is any of this supposed to be for? It seems cut from the same lame-brained cloth as the electoral college scheme. Perhaps I'd care about caucusing in a world where I'd ridden my horse a few miles in and this would be my only chance to hear arguments about certain candidates before sending a stranger off to some faraway city (twenty whole miles distant!) to cast a vote for a president whose words I'd never actually hear from his own mouth. (His, in ye olde days I'm talking about, of course.)

In a world where anything I want to know (true or false) about any candidate is just a Google search away, a world where my exposure to the election will last over a year and not just a few days, a world where I don't need some proxy for a candidate to tell me what that candidate stands for, caucuses seem like a complete farce. And what's a word for worse than a complete farce? Because that's what it is in Colorado, one of the few states that actually has mail-in voting for all other elections, yet which for some stupid reason still goes through this caucusing nonsense.

I suppose I am glad to have gone through the process, as I now know it's something I never want to do again. Despite having every intention of actually voting in the election in November, despite having voted in every general election (presidential, mid-term, or annual) in which I've ever been eligible. It goes to show you, make voting difficult and people won't want to do it. (Which is totally the real motivation behind the voting regulations being enacted in so many states.)

I still care very much about the outcome of elections in general, and this one in particular. But I did not need to know how this caucus sausage gets made.

Caucus sausage. Giggity.